On the surface, Eliza Ault-Connell and I are quite similar.
We’re both in our thirties, married and have three kids – however, Eliza lost her legs and most of her fingers to meningococcal disease at the age of 16.
It came out of nowhere and felt like the flu before progressing rapidly, leaving her young life drastically changed.
To say she’s faced some major obstacles is a massive understatement. But these days, she’s a mum of three, Director of Meningococcal Australia and a Paralympian.
So how on earth does she manage to raise a family under such challenging circumstances? By being awesome, that’s how.
Can you remember how you felt at 16 when you first started coming down with what you’d later discover was meningococcal disease?
“Basically I woke up one morning on September 30, 1997 with a headache, vomiting and fever. I popped a couple of paracetamol and took a nap. I woke up a couple of hours later with a rash and mum knew something was seriously wrong and we went to the local emergency department in town. En route the rash was turning black. I was quickly diagnosed with meningococcal disease and airlifted to a larger city hospital that was more experienced to cope with what was about to unfold.
On the second night my parents were told that to save my life my legs would need to be amputated below the knee, so really it wasn’t a choice, it was lose me or lose my legs.”
"On the second night my parents were told that to save my life my legs would need to be amputated below the knee, so really it wasn't a choice, it was lose me or lose my legs." Image via iStock.
Now that you are a mum, you must truly understand the anguish your own mother must have gone through that night.
"I can see now as a mother it must have been an awful thing to hear, but so fortunate that they chose to do that to keep me here. I was in a coma for two weeks and as a 16-year-old waking up to find both of your legs amputated was a shock, but when I was told how serious things were I felt grateful to still be here.
It was my choice however to have my fingers amputated. I was told that the risk of re-infection to my body could be devastating. So again really there wasn't a choice as I wanted desperately to live. The day I had my fingers and affected skin on my arms and legs removed was the hardest day of my life, physically more than emotionally."
You went on to become a successful Paralympian. Were you always into sport?
"Sport always played a huge part in my life. I enjoyed the friendships and camaraderie of sport but never had that competitive streak. This changed after meningococcal. I felt challenged to learn so many everyday tasks, then I felt I needed something more. I thrived on the challenge.
I was fortunate to see a video of US model and athlete Amie Mullins running at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics and knew I wanted to give it a crack on the carbon blade prosthetics. I had a lot of work to do as I only weighed 30kg after meningococcal took its toll. I've been fortunate to represent my country in the Commonwealth Games, Olympics, Paralympics and World Championships."
What are some of the unique challenges you faced during your pregnancies?
"One of the challenges of being a pregnant double leg amputee...well, it was like walking on stilts with a weighted sumo suit. Highly unglamorous at times. In my first pregnancy my prosthetics ended up basically breaking so it became quite unsafe."
"Really it wasn't a choice, it was lose me or lose my legs." Image via iStock.
What do we all need to know in order to catch meningococcal disease before it becomes serious?
"Know, check, act. It’s knowing the signs and symptoms of meningococcal: these can include fever, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, sore limbs or joints, a stiff neck or sensitivity to light - then in later stages, a rash which can start as a spot, blister or pinpricks which then later turns to the tell-tale meningococcal purple bruise-like rash. Medical treatment should be sought before the rash appears as by then it is a medical emergency.
Importantly, check your vaccinations are up to date. Finally, act, and act quickly if you suspect meningococcal. This disease progresses so rapidly."
What do parents specifically need to keep in mind?
"There are still a lot of misconceptions around whether their children are fully protected from meningococcal disease as they have received the free vaccine on the National Immunisation Program. But, parents need to be aware it doesn’t protect against all strains. The best thing parents can do is talk to their doctor."
Do your children realise how special you are? Do they ever play with any of your devices and equipment?
"I use a wheelchair at home so I've always got a child on my lap hitching a ride, or I'm crawling around and someone has taken off with my chair and is racing around the house. My children's friends now accept me with “Barbie legs”. I believe in transparency and openness about my disability."
Meningococcal Australia is a national patient group dedicated to increasing community awareness of the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease.
Anyone who suspects they or someone they care for may have meningococcal disease should seek medical attention immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment is critical to ensure the best chance of recovery and survival. Parents wanting more information about the disease, signs and symptoms should talk to their doctor and visit meningococcal.org.au or www.facebook.com/MeningococcalAustralia
This post was made possible through support from GSK Australia